In the Americas we have three species of phoebes, a songbird in the flycatcher family. Recently a Black Phoebe has been regularly visiting my window, reminding me of the sweet beauty of phoebes.
We have two of the three phoebe species in Northern California year-round: Black and Say’s. The third species, the Eastern Phoebe, lives in the central and eastern part of the continent, never comes to California.
There are Old World flycatchers and Tyrant flycatchers, hundreds of species across the globe. Phoebes are Tyrant flycatchers, genus Sayornis.
Every summer we have migrant flycatchers nest and breed on our property, then around August they fly south. Once the migrant flycatchers have left, the Black Phoebe arrives, spends the winter here. Usually it’s just one individual…and that individual is here now.
Black Phoebes are commonly seen in their range. They especially like to be near water, and are often seen pumping their tails.
Being flycatchers, phoebes eat insects. They have an endearing way of hunting. From their perch, they chase after the insect in a seemingly random flight—swoops and half-circles, zigs and zags.
In the bird world we use the verb “sally” to describe flycatcher flight.
I love to watch flycatchers for this. They look a little loony, because invariably you cannot see the insect and it looks like the bird is losing its balance, or sanity, or both. But of course the bird is not mixed up at all, it’s successfully hunting.
The second North American phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, lives in the western half of the continent. They live in grasslands and are accordingly different shades of tan, brown, and gold, sometimes peach depending on the light.
The third North American phoebe is the Eastern Phoebe, found in the continent’s middle and east. Due to the cold winters, Eastern Phoebes have a large migrating range.
All three phoebe range maps are displayed below.
I don’t get to see Eastern Phoebes too often, so here are two links from bird-loving blogger friends who live east of the Rockies:
We see phoebes perched most of the time. Even when they sally out for an insect, they then return to the same perch.
Strip away all the facts, and the real enchantment comes every day when the Black Phoebe comes to visit. I hear the chipping sound and come to the window and wait. Lately Phoebe has been perching on the railing of our deck. If I stay inside, the bird will start catching insects close to the house, so I use the house as a blind and watch from inside.
These have not been the easiest days lately for anyone. So a cheerful Black Phoebe at my window brightens the whole day.
I say, “Hi Phoebe, so nice to see you again.”
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander except Eastern Phoebe.
Phoebe range maps below. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.